New Work in Progress: Hephaestus

Next, we spoke to Meghan Randolph, the Founder and Executive Director of Music Theatre of Madison, about their upcoming production of Hephaestus by Nathan Fosbinder. MTM will be producing the world premiere of the show this summer, which has received a Frank Young Fund for New Musicals Production Grant.

Hephaestus tells the story of the physically deformed, oft-forgotten Greek God of fire. Cast down to Earth by his mother, the jealous and powerful Hera, he reaches into his soul and identifies his strength as an artisan to win back his spot on Mount Olympus. Soaring contemporary music, beautiful costumes, and the Greek traditions of comedy and tragedy mesh together in this premiere that truly belongs to Madison.

What is Music Theatre of Madison’s history with new works, and how does this production of Hephaestus fit into your overall commitment to new works development?
Hephaestus is actually our very first developed show. In the past, we have held readings of new works and found that pieces written locally were very popular with our audiences. We’ve also spent our time searching for shows that weren’t likely to make it to our area and focused on producing those [Jarrow and Chapman’s Hostage Song (NAMT Fest ’09), Pen and Loddato’s Arlington, and Cheslik-DeMeyer, Maner, and Hewitt’s Lizzie (NAMT Fest ’10) to name a few]. We want to show the Madison area audience that musical theatre is, comparatively, a very young art form, and there’s so much more to come. Our audiences are very curious and educated, but some don’t know a whole lot about how creating musicals works. We have wanted to develop a new piece for years, and when Hephaestus came around, we knew it was time to take the leap. 

How did Hephaestus first find its way to Music Theatre of Madison?
Nathan Fosbinder was in a production with us in 2007 when he was only 14. I became Facebook friends with him once he went to college at Boston Conservatory and followed his work there, and eventually saw that he had become a composer. I began talking with him about potentially doing a reading of something he had written. He said, “Well, I have an idea for a show about Hephaestus, the Greek God of fire, but I’ve only written one song for it.” Then he sent me the song. That was all I needed to know he was a very gifted composer with a great future. So we decided to develop the piece, but we didn’t want to just do it “in house.” We thought it would be fun to let audiences be part of the adventure. So last year we did a workshop, which for us meant an event where audiences could see the costume and set renderings (and vote for their favorites), snack on Greek food, hear a reading of the show as it existed then and offer their feedback. It got people very invested. They gave great ideas, some of which were incorporated into the show. This endeavor helped people get a glimpse of how a musical has many stops on its way to production and gave them a stake in the process. Nathan, the director Catie O’Donnell, orchestrator Mark Wurzelbacher, and I spent a year with the feedback we’d received as well as our own ideas, and now we’ve got a full show that we’re ready to present to our audiences. We’re very proud of it, and we think our audiences will enjoy it greatly. 

What inspired MTM to produce this show now, and what makes you a great partner for this piece?
We were at a stage in our organization where we really needed to double down on the “what’s next?” aspect of our work. Wisconsin is in dire straits when it comes to arts funding, and we knew we needed to have a mission that made us stick out from the competition. That was the practical side. From an artistic side, we wanted to inspire our audiences with the talent that existed here and challenge ourselves as artists with the process of creating new work. We also work with high school interns and letting them see this process is a terrific experience. Thanks to grant funding from our local libraries, we’re also able to do previews and discussions with the composer at several library locations in our county. The Wisconsin Union Theater also provided a grant for Nathan to workshop his pieces with UW-Madison students, who will perform them in a free master class. It just opened up a lot of opportunities for us to connect with our community in a variety of ways. We want our community to understand how much musical theatre can offer, particularly new musicals by emerging composers. Hephaestus is a universal story of family strife, acceptance and self-love, and even though it’s one of the oldest stories ever, it manages to resonate, and always will. 

What developmental work have you done with the writer as you prepare for this world premiere?
Nathan was also working on an MFA in Musical Theatre writing from NYU, and was in his second year after the workshop in 2018, so the amount of work we were able to do remotely was really remarkable. He had a sense of the actors and their strengths, and we had some great audience feedback to go off of. The overarching theme we heard was that the audience wanted more time with the characters and more time with Hephaestus once he’s cast down to Earth. Nathan went so far as to add a new character, the only mortal, Kabeiro. He really gave each character a clearer journey, wrote some new songs and solidified the story. It was so impressive to see what he got done, and to see our team working together to put all the pieces in place. 

Why should folks plan a trip to Wisconsin to see the show this summer?
Come see what kind of talent resides in places you’d never think it would be. There are sensational actors, singers, musicians, designers and directors who have made their homes all over the country. Many of the theatres here are working very hard to create an arts economy so that these people can fully make a living in our community. MTM is growing by leaps and bounds at that and others are too. Great regional theatre doesn’t just exist in large cities. Plus, our show is on the beautiful UW-Madison campus in the Memorial Union, which contains a terrace looking out over the lake, tons of restaurants, and of course, beer and cheese curds. So you can really make a night out of it and celebrate the greatest parts of Wisconsin!

For more information about Hephaestus and to buy tickets, visit Music Theatre of Madison’s website.

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